It’s great to take the proactive approach to losing body fat and focus on actions that promote getting lean. But it’s just as important to look at behaviors that negatively affect body composition and make you more likely to pack on the pounds.
Two related themes arise in regards to gaining fat. First, the factors that predict an increase in body fat are part of an obesogenic modern environment that contains too much high-calorie, poor quality food, excessive stress, and too much leisure-time technology. Second, these factors work together to affect hormone levels in the body, altering metabolic rate and triggering food intake.
This article will give you the rundown on 7 things to avoid, whether you want to lose body fat or just maintain your current lean body composition.
#1: Drinking Sugar-Sweetened Beverages
Since New York City attempted to limit the size of sugar-sweetened beverages two years ago, it seems like old news that we shouldn’t be drinking this stuff. But, people still are.
Sugar-sweetened beverages have zero nutritional benefit and they are the greatest provider of calories in the American diet. But these drinks don’t just provide empty calories: They have little impact on satisfying hunger so people can consume large quantities without reducing appetite.
Additionally, the body responds differently to carbs (which is what sugar-sweetened beverages are) in liquid versus solid forms. For example, in one study that compared the effect of having subjects eat jellybeans or drink soda daily for four weeks, results showed that those who ate the jellybeans compensated for the additional calories in the jellybeans and decreased energy intake accordingly.
In contrast, subjects who drank the soda not only didn’t compensate by reducing calories, but actually increased calorie intake by 17 percent over normal. This resulted in them gaining double the fat mass compared to the jellybean group.
Take Away: Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages like they’re the plague—soda, sports drinks, sugar-added juice, and sweetened coffee. Stick to plain water, tea, and coffee.
#2: Eating High-Calorie Processed Foods
Big surprise that the following calorie-laden processed foods are bad for weight management:
Potato chips and other processed carb snacks
Cookies, pastries, sweets, and desserts
Refined grain-based foods (bread, pasta, crackers)
But the reason these foods increase body fat goes beyond the fact that they are calorie dense. Refined carbs have actually been shown to trigger food intake because they “light up” reward parts of the brain. Moderation and portion control becomes impossible with high-calorie refined foods.
Additionally, these foods lead to fast digestion rates and large variations in blood sugar and insulin, meaning they have less of an impact on satiety and hunger management compared to whole foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole (boiled) grains, fish, unprocessed meat, and minimally processed dairy (yogurt, eggs, milk, cheese).
Take Away: Eat real food! Plan every meal around a whole protein source, a vegetable, and some form of healthy fat (nuts, seeds, or fat that naturally occurs in your protein source).
#3: Too Little Sleep
The amount of sleep people need is very individualized but one thing we know for sure is that if you’re chronically sleep deprived, you’re at risk for gaining fat. People who don’t get enough sleep develop impaired glucose metabolism, which means their bodies aren’t able to use the sugar in the blood effectively and it is more likely to get stored as body fat.
A contributing factor is that sleep deprivation raises the stress hormone cortisol, which triggers food intake and suppresses physical activity. Basically, it makes us lazy and hungry for high-calorie food. Plus, our willpower gets depleted and we’re more likely to give in to our desire to eat and lie on the couch. Finally, sleep deprivation lowers levels of leptin (which triggers satiety) and raises ghrelin (makes us hungry).
Take Away: Be religious about practicing good sleep hygiene: Avoid caffeine after noon, stick to a consistent bedtime/wake time, sleep in complete darkness, turn off electronics an hour before bed, do relaxation, and try natural sleep aids like magnesium and melatonin.
#4: Being Inactive
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that being inactive is a primary predictor of fat gain. Interestingly, the reason being a couch potato leads to fat gain likely has more to do with changes in gene signaling, hormone levels, and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal function than the fact that physical activity burns calories.
In as little as 20 minutes of sitting, gene signaling drops, blunting physiological processes like tissue repair. Over longer periods, blood sugar is taken up into your cells at a slower rate, leading the body to store it as fat instead of burning it as energy.
For example, in one study tested which factors would predict fat gain when subjects were overfed for 100 days. Results revealed that three things led to the greatest increase in body fat:
Low levels of enzymes involved in fat burning. Basically the subjects had poor metabolic flexibility and couldn’t readily tap into fat stores.
Low VO2 max relative to body mass. The subjects didn’t use oxygen very efficiently, depressing metabolic rate.
Low levels of androgen hormones, such as testosterone and related hormones. Low androgen levels also correlated with low lean mass levels—a combination which will lead to reduced metabolic rate.
Take Away: Getting the right amount of physical activity for peak health requires a couple of components: First, do intense exercise such as weight training and sprints to build muscle mass. Second, be as active as possible throughout the day, taking frequent breaks from sitting.
#5: TV Watching
Abundant research shows that people who spend more time watching TV are much more likely to gain body fat over time. In addition, leisure screen time is closely linked with risk of death and disease.
But it’s not just the fact that people are sitting around staring at a screen that leads to fat gain and poor health. Exposure to the blue light that screens emit will trigger food intake by activating reward centers in the brain. The result is that leisure screen time leads to the following habits:
Snacking mindlessly while watching.
Choosing processed, high-calorie foods that lead to greater calorie intake.
Lack of satiety despite large energy consumption.
Throw in the visual images of palatable food from food commercials and you get an increase in the hunger hormone ghrelin that further triggers food cravings and out of control chowing down.
Take Away: Limit leisure screen time to less than an hour a day and avoid eating while watching. It’s important to get away from mindless eating entirely, but if you need some help in the meantime, limit portions prior to snacking and try choosing low-energy veggies.
#6: Emotional Eating
An emerging area of obesity research focuses on how people are developing an elevated brain response to foods that stimulate consumption of high-calorie “comfort” foods.
Studies show that eating certain foods, particularly those containing sugar, wheat, and processed fat leads to the release of substances called endocannabinoids in the gut. They target dopamine and opioid receptors in the brain to make you feel good. Naturally, this triggers a desire for more.
Researchers note that this neural vulnerability to food is the result of both our high stress levels and our increased exposure to high-calorie food images and commercials due to changes in food marketing over the last 20 years.
Take Away: Protect yourself from the “food cues” from food commercials, processed food messaging, and related obesogenic food marketing. Shift away from rewarding yourself with food by finding other stress management techniques including exercise, meditation, socializing, and deep breathing.
#7: Alcohol Overconsumption
The good news is that limited alcohol consumption, such as a small glass of wine with dinner, can protect against obesity, especially in women. The bad news is that greater alcohol consumption, particularly beer, but also large intake of liquor and wine, are predictive of fat gain.
After all, alcohol is calorie dense, containing 7 calories a gram compared to 4 in carbs and protein and 9 in fat. It also negatively affects glucose metabolism, increasing fat storage.
In addition, alcohol consumption tends to increase food intake, most likely by increasing the feel-good effects of food. Finally, even a moderate hangover leads us to be less physically active and reduce energy expenditure, contributing to future fat gain.
Take Away: Be wise about alcohol, limiting its use to high-quality red wine with meals. Be mindful about portions when imbibing and stay away from beer and the hard stuff.